If the internet experience is an endless series of aimless strolls down virtual streets, then Dutch design collective Metahaven are the ones leading us through the dark looking glass of our glowing screens. In their latest work, Information Skies, Vinca Kruk and Daniel van der Velden conjure a dark, psychological trip via a 24-minute in-browser film that is an exploration of realities both virtual and natural.
In Information Skies—narrated in Hungarian—a young couple have withdrawn into a forest imagining that they are in danger. Trying to, as Metahaven put it, “reason with their sense of self,” the two remove their VR headsets, causing their waking and dream lives to blend into a new reality that is stuck somewhere between past and future.
This plays out as a combination of animated and live action footage, along with narration, foreboding music, and sound design. The live opening footage appears to be a gray dusk (or dawn) scene, with water and forest reflections appearing on a pond’s surface. Information Skies then shifts to an animation that features both abstractions (that eventually resolve into anime characters) and a representation of the night sky. It shifts again to reveal one half of the young couple standing in the forest with a VR headset on, looking around at some virtual reality.
In a metafictional moment, the narrator reminds reviewers that the story only exists only if they want it to—they need only hit “play.” And when play is hit, and the imagery and sound begins to unfold, the film’s female lead, Georgina Dávid (who also stars in the first part of this diptych, The Sprawl), narrates a story about a suicide that is full of intimate and personal experiences that ping-pong between fantasy and reality. As Information Skies unfolds it gets no less abstract and impressionistic, leaving viewers with more questions than answers as to exactly where the characters are experiencing reality.
The film, originally an online commission for Gwangju Biennale 2016, and now being shown at Auto Italia East in London and across the globe at Mumbai Art Room, offers viewers only a pause/play button with no scroll back or forth function. While its original incarnation is as an online piece, Kruk and van der Velden tell The Creators Project that its gallery screening is how the “internet-cinematic piece” is meant to be viewed. That the film is about virtual reality but does not use VR headsets is by design.
“We really don't care as much for VR headsets or the technologies, as much as we care for the psychological condition of VR, or truth bubbles, in our lives, and in society,” Metahaven explain. “We are thinking of VR as a social phenomenon, confronting 'legal truth'—something we previously explored in the documentary The Sprawl (Propaganda About Propaganda). VR as belief.”
While the online version of Information Skies manages to pull the viewer in with its mesmerizing multimedia approach, the gallery exhibitions add another layer of immersive reality—this time like theatrical set design. The Auto Italia installation combines Metahaven’s The Sprawl, in the gallery’s front space, with Information Skies in the back space.
In the front, visitors stand amidst a forest of columns viewing The Sprawl across five screens mounted on trees at various heights, with a red moon glowing in the background. The screens shows footage of a Russian forest; a plane passing through a moonlit night sky; and a voice reciting a poem by Anna Akhmatova, while a woman, steeped in near total darkness, looks at herself into the black mirror of her computer screen. Then the woman, and others, look at visitors.
When visitors get to the gallery’s back space for Information Skies, they are greeted by a large wall projection of the film. As Metahaven say, it’s a fictional sequel to The Sprawl, so its location is appropriate.
“They have an okay life,” Metahaven explain. “They dream of something larger than they are in life—symbolizing themselves as dragons. But in their dealing with loss, the trauma starts.”
But anyone expecting a tidy resolution to the trauma laid out in Information Skies may not find it. As the narrator says in the film, “Full circle. Face the void.” As we all know when it comes to virtual realities, whether they’re video games or the internet we explore on our phones, there is no easy way out.
Click here to watch Information Skies in full.
Click here to see more of Metahaven’s work.